We’re already a month into my second year as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and it feels like things are going much more smoothly at work. Some of the improvement is the result of actual differences between this year and last at my school: we have a new coordinator (vice-principal), Carnival is earlier, and we used a computer program to produce the class schedule with miraculous speed. But a lot of the improvement is just me—my experience and interactions with things and people.
I think that one reason why I find more gratifying now than I did a year ago is that I’ve become better at identifying why I do things, at focusing in on the things whose importance I can not only recognize, but articulate.
Let me tell you about one such gratifying work project. It’s a workshop; you may remember an exuberant blogpost about another workshop just a couple weeks ago. This workshop was much less triumphant, per se, but at the same time…really, really satisfying, maybe in a more personal way.
This past Saturday, I gave a 2.5-hour workshop/training for the 22 teachers at Funidiomas, which is an organization that gives English classes to kids on Saturdays. My counterpart (co-teacher) Gustavo, who works for the organization and asked me to give the workshop, calls Funidiomas a “foundation,” but that’s a little misleading; it does charge for its classes. (The costs, however, seem reasonable, especially when compared to those of other private English schools in Barranquilla like the Colombo Americano, with which Peace Corps has previously collaborated.)
A year ago, I probably would have been reluctant to give this workshop. For one thing, it was for a private English school, and I was (and still am) all about spending my time on public education; people who can’t afford private classes need my help more than those who can. Also, the organization does not operate at my school; it operates at a nearby colegio (which, incidentally, now has its own Peace Corps Volunteer). And, did I mention, this required me to work on a Saturday morning—a significant Shabbat sacrifice.
But I did the workshop, gladly, and I can tell you exactly why.
1. I want to build positive relationships with my co-teachers (or continue doing so). I’ve learned that favors go a long way. Gustavo asked me to help him out with his job at Funidiomas by leading this training; I want to be there for him. That simple. At the one-year (or one-year-and-one-month) mark, I feel like I have very good relationships with all of my counterparts, which is a major feat—just ask any PCV here.
2. I want to develop the professional capacity of my counterparts. Gustavo asked me to give this workshop, and I said: sure, but you’re going to lead it with me. And he did. It was very cool. I made all the plans, and then Gustavo and I co-facilitated the sessions. He said that it was a new experience for him; he had never taught teachers before. He really liked it. It’s my personal opinion that Gustavo has a lot of yet-unrealized potential as a teacher and as a leader of teachers, so I am really interested in pushing him to do more of this kind of thing—he’ll be making a difference long after I’ve left Colombia. Sustainability.
3. I want to open opportunities for future projects that are closer to my primary work. One of my visions is to hold English teacher training workshops at my colegio for all the public school teachers in our part of town. (Southern/poor Barranquilla often gets shortchanged when it comes to citywide initiatives or resources.) So I told Gustavo, when I informed him that he would co-facilitating the Funidiomas event, that I if things went well, he and I would replicate the training, but at our school. And, guess what—Gustavo was really excited about this possibility. Eventually, I’d like to set up a structure for a formal community of practice among the English teachers in my part of town, and having the collaboration of a capable and confident Colombian co-facilitator like Gustavo is going to be crucial.
4. I want to reach out to Funidiomas/private school teachers who will one day be public school teachers. Funidiomas employs, for its Saturday classes, a lot of recent graduates and last-year university students. They may or may not be working with poor/disadvantaged youth through Funidiomas, but almost all of them will soon be teachers in Barranquilla’s public school system. Training young teachers is rewarding for me because they are often more willing to accept new ideas, and because they have long careers ahead of them.
5. I want to get better at designing and giving workshops. This workshop, and the follow-up one I’m doing with Funidiomas in two weeks, gave me the chance to keep practicing. Plus, the outline and materials I developed for the workshops sessions, I can now save, re-use, and share with other Volunteers and Colombian counterparts who want to teach the same topics in the future. (The topics, by the way, were “Teaching Speaking” and “Feedback and Error Correction.”)
When I sit down and think through and write through all of the specific things I wanted to accomplish with this workshop and to accomplish as a Peace Corps Volunteer more generally, it is a lot easier to find gratification and direction in my work…
…Which I think is important; you’ll hear from many PCVs that it’s difficult to make meaning and find progress in Volunteer service, perhaps even more so in PC Colombia/Barranquilla than in other countries. As a new post, we are still fundamentally defining our presence here (institutionally and individually), and as an urban post, it can be difficult to reconcile preconceived notions of community and service with the dizzying and sweltering city reality.
Alright, that’s all I have. And some photos.
(As I write a draft of this blogpost, I sit in a plastic lawn chair under the gloriously shady mango tree in my backyard. No fewer than three mangos have fallen in the past hour, posing a significant threat to my cranial/mental health. Also, the neighbors are blasting music loud enough for the entire neighborhood to hear on this fine afternoon—but that’s another matter entirely.)